This unobtrusive speed shield sign recently deployed on Diamond Drive may be doing more than you think! Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
A photo produced by a speed shield sign deployed near Los Alamos Fire Department’s Station 4 on Diamond Drive. Courtesy LAPD
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County residents have been saddened this year by three fatal motor vehicle crashes in the community. Nationwide, the first six months of 2021 yielded an estimated 20,160 deaths in motor vehicles, up 18.4 percent from 2020.
The Los Alamos Reporter sat down with Los Alamos Police Department Cmdr. Oliver Morris to discuss the situation and what can be done and is being done to make the roadways safer for everyone.
Los Alamos Police Department Cmdr. Oliver Morris in his office during a recent interview with the Los Alamos Reporter. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
Morris noted that 2021 has not been ideal for the community with three fatal crashes in one year. Historically, the average has been maybe one every other year.
“It is definitely something that weighs on us as a department, because at the end of the day, we’re that first line of ensuring that motorists are safe,” Morris said.
He said LAPD has tried to be more proactive and a little smarter on how they address traffic concerns.
“We also understand that it’s a partnership with the community. While I think in some ways our numbers aren’t showing huge spikes, we do see a lot more driving behavior that can contribute to a serious incident or accident, and I think at the end of the day, it all comes down to potentially saving a life. And it could be one of our own officers,” Morris said.
Last year, LAPD purchased two speed shield signs that can be deployed anywhere in the County. While they may appear to just inform drivers of their speed, they are more high-tech than the speed detection signs LAPD has been using that are attached to trailers.
The new signs are web-enabled and they pass on all the data from vehicles to the Department via a Verizon air card they give us all the data from the vehicles.
“Any citizen can say they think there is a speeding problem in their neighborhood and we can deploy one of those signs to their neighborhood and it tracks all the cars driving past it. It gives us all the speeds,” Morris said.
The signs can be set up to take photos of violators driving over a certain speed.
“We recently deployed one near the Los Alamos Golf Course at the golf course as we had a fatal there and we’re already getting a lot of data. In the last two days we identified two hourly spots where we are getting upwards of seven violators of 15 mph + or more,” Morris said.
This means that all he has to do is email his officers and ask them to go and address that problem. Using the data transmitted from the speed sign on Diamond, Morris was able to show that the average speed was 54 miles an hour in a 40 mile zone. On that particular Wednesday between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. there were seven violators and their average speed was 54.4 mph, and at 8 p.m. there was one violator traveling at 74 mph. Morris hopes that if people know the speed shield signs are taking photos of vehicles, it might concern them.
“Right now we have two signs and they are worth their weight in gold. We keep one in White Rock and one in Los Alamos. I’d like to get an additional one in Los Alamos because there are more streets so I’ll be requesting funds for another one,” Morris said.
A sample of data provided by the speed shield signs deployed in Los Alamos and White Rock. Courtesy LAPD
The signs are lightweight and easy to mount within minutes. They can be monitored from anywhere that has an internet connection. This means that an officer in a patrol unit can see a photo of a vehicle that is violating a speed limit from the computer screen in his vehicle. So, a driver may be speeding past the golf course for example and the officer will be able to recognize that vehicle when it passes his patrol unit further down Diamond Drive near Los Alamos High School for example, and will have the opportunity to recheck its speed.
“The photos the speed signs take may not be to the quality of reading the license plate, but definitely it will get you the make, model and color of the vehicle so if it’s a certain person speeding we can sit an officer in that area and specifically look for that vehicle,” Morris said.
Asked if that practice could be considered entrapment, Morris said usually entrapment involves playing on the weaknesses of another.
“We’re out running traffic all the time and it’s our job to enforce the speed limit, so whether they choose to do it or not, we’re going to focus our officers at those specific times where we see the highest number of violators off the speed signs. That’s typically what we’ve been doing,” he said.
He said the Department’s goal is not to write more tickets than last year or write a certain number of tickets for funding.
“It’s not about that. Our primary goal right now is to reduce injury accidents. We typically give a little more leeway to people going down a hill or on a wider roadway with a lot of visibility, but the problem with Los Alamos is our topography is so diverse and it’s very complex with the mesas,” Morris said.
He noted the example of when there’s a blind curve before an area where people are turning at a slower speed.
“There are some places people turn because it’s closer to their house but there may be another intersection that’s actually safer. For instance going down ‘Conoco Hill’, when you’re making a right, rather than turning on one of the other streets, if you turn at the light, at least people are typically going slower because there’s a traffic light there. Things like that are good to not only do yourself, but to teach to new drivers.”
Morris said right now, the Department is on pace to surpass the number of citations they wrote in 2019. He said obviously in 2020 the number was down by several hundred and he thinks a lot of that was due to COVID-19 and not seeing as many people out on the roadways.
“We are already on pace to pass to our 2020 injury accidents this year. We’re neck and neck with last year. That’s the thing that concerns me the most. We have two more months of driving in 2021 and we have winter coming,” Morris said. “So even though our crashes overall might be under, what I’m looking at is the injury crashes and that’s why this year is different to years past; in addition to the three fatalities, we’ve had three cyclists pretty severely injured, we’ve had a couple of other cyclists struck, we’ve had a pedestrian fatality. Those are the kinds of things that are red flags for me. Our officers have been going out and looking for not just speeding citations but people running stop signs or not yielding to pedestrians. That’s a red flag and we need to address it.”
Morris said the Department works well with Los Alamos County Traffic & Streets Division Manager Juan Rael.
“Juan has been very responsive and we’ve been working together. There was a traffic study done at Barranca Mesa Elementary School in April that just looked at how that school can improve student drop-off and pick-up. Those kinds of things are happening. I guess the one thing we need from our community is to have a social awareness of just very polite driving behavior. We need to understand we have a lot of teen drivers in town and teens are four times as likely to be in a crash. We, as adults need to set the example,” Morris said.
Asked about the new roundabout on NM502 at Trinity Drive, Morris said there have been fewer traffic accidents in that area than expected.
“I think it’s been fairly good because I think with the roundabout, there’s a lot more space in that area now than there used to be. We used to have a lot more crashes there when it was a Y – we would actually have people go through the median at times,” he said. “I think there is some hesitancy of people not knowing exactly what to do. I think they’re getting more used to it, which is great, but there might be somebody new in town that’s not used to it and they might drive a little slower and come to a stop and I think that’s where drivers just need to exercise patience.”
Morris also discussed the effects degradation of roadways can have on driver safety, especially State Road 4, which he said is in a bad state. Morris was recently invited to join the Statewide Traffic Records Board and he hopes that being on that board will allow him to bring some awareness to that issue.
“I’ve heard that there are some plans to improve the roadway but because of all the bumps and the shaking of your vehicle, that actually decreases your ability to stop in a timely and also reduces your control of your vehicle. Because we do have a lot of cyclists on State Road 4 as well, that’s something I’m concerned about,” he said. “We’ve had some cyclists reach out to LAPD with concerns about the signage on the roadway, because state law does allow you to ride two abreast and there is signage that says, “Share the Roadway’.”
He said sometimes the law may be in favor of a certain behavior.
“You always have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the safest thing to do’, because at the end of the day we just don’t want to see any crashes. There may be things that you can do like driving down Central Avenue where the speed limit is 25 miles an hour, but is driving 25 miles an hour down Central during the middle of the day a safe speed? It’s not. We technically could write a citation where the officer could articulate that 25 is too fast for that area,” Morris said. Morris noted that one thing he did in his position four years ago was switch to Traffic and Criminal Software (TRaCS), a statewide traffic data collection software initiative used by 36 law enforcement agencies with the goal of electronic data transfer. TraCS allows officers in New Mexico to accurately complete forms such as Uniform Traffic Citations, Uniform Crash Reports, Commercial Vehicle Inspection, Offense/Incident Forms and Tow Sheets.“We used to file crash reports on an Excel spreadsheet and mail them to the Department of Transportation. I learned about this TRACS program that was a self-validating crash report, so we weren’t going to have any errors and they would be immediately sent to DOT,” Morris said. “What I liked about the program is that it had an interface where we can scan drivers’ licenses and registration cards so the officers are spending less time on the side of the road or the car, because officers get killed when they’re on the side of the road writing tickets.”
He said using TRaCS has improved the Department’s data entry resulting in fewer errors on citations and better data from crash reports.
To report non-emergency driving or traffic concerns, call LAPD Dispatch, (505) 662-8222.
A recent traffic stop in Los Alamos. Photo Courtesy LAPD